Nuclear Energy: Infeasibility and Unimportance

10 Jun, 2013    ·   3988

M. V. Ramana outlines the thesis of his book, “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India”

In January 2013, speaking at a function to honour nuclear scientists, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asserted, “Nuclear energy will remain an essential and increasingly important element of our energy mix.” The PM did not specify what essential means or how important it is going to become. Nevertheless, an examination of the history of nuclear energy in India suggests what is likely.

Let us start with whether nuclear power is essential. The current nuclear capacity in the country - more than sixty years after the atomic energy programme was established - is just 4.78 GW, about 2.3 percent of the total generation capacity, hardly a level to befit the term essential. Currently, about 5.3 GW of new capacity is under construction. In stark contrast, the renewable generation capacity is currently over 27 GW. Less striking, but more significant, is the fact that despite being subject to natural intermittency, renewables generated roughly twice as much electricity than nuclear power in the last year.

How about the long term? The book, The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, enunciates several reasons why nuclear power’s share is likely to remain at the level of a few percent for decades.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has a long history of making ambitious projections, none of which have been fulfilled despite extravagant budgets. In 1970, for example, they projected that by the year 2000 there would be 43.5 GW; whereas, the actual installed capacity was only 2.72 GW. The trend has continued. During the debates over the US-India nuclear deal, as a way to assert its importance, the DAE projected a figure of 470 GW by about 2050. Given the appalling history of the DAE’s inability to meet targets it set itself, such claims are implausible.

Technically, the DAE is unlikely to achieve these targets because its plans involve constructing hundreds of fast breeder reactors - the much-touted three stage nuclear programme. In the early decades of nuclear power, many countries pursued breeder programmes, but practically all of them have given up because breeder reactors have proven to be unsafe and uneconomical. The DAE has simply not absorbed this lesson, and shows a lack of organisational learning.

In addition, the DAE’s projections have not properly accounted for the future availability of plutonium, because its calculations do not include the lag between the time a certain amount of plutonium is committed to a breeder reactor and when it is recovered in sufficient quantities from spent fuel to allow for refuelling the same reactor and contributing to the start-up fuel for a new breeder reactor. These problems with the projected growth rates are not due to differences in assumptions, but in scientific impossibilities. In addition, the DAE has adopted various unrealistic assumptions in its plutonium calculations.

The DAE’s Plan B, which became enabled by the US-India deal, is to shift to imported light water reactors, from Russia, France, and the US. Unfortunately for it, these reactors, especially the ones from France and the US, are incredibly expensive and would make nuclear electricity even more uncompetitive than it already is. For example, the cost of the six proposed EPR reactors at the Jaitapur site might be upwards of Rs. 3 lakh crores. Electricity from such reactors would cost up to Rs. 15 per unit. Even if a few such projects are commissioned, to satisfy geo-strategic calculations, it cannot be sustained if nuclear power were to become a major source of electricity in the country.

Finally, as illustrated by the intense protests over the Kudankulam reactors, opposition to nuclear facilities, which has been the case since the 1980s, has become a significant concern. In addition to concerns about safety or radioactive waste, the opposition also stems from their impact on lives and livelihoods. Nuclear reactors, for example, require cooling water and land, which competes with the needs of farmers, while discharges of hot water and radioactive effluents into the sea affect fisheries. This source of opposition will intensify over the decades as land and other natural resources become subject to tremendous competition. While the government has so far managed to put down opposition through major police deployment, this is going to become increasingly difficult.

All of the above-mentioned factors only address the infeasibility of nuclear power, not its desirability or otherwise. There are serious safety concerns, high costs, environmental impacts, and significant conflicts with democratic sensibilities, associated with a large scale expansion of nuclear power.

There are those who seem to think that despite these negative factors, nuclear power is still critical to the electricity sector. But as argued above, and elaborated in greater detail in the book, this desirability does not mean that nuclear power is likely to become an important source of electricity anytime over the next few decades.